The first Avatar movie came out 13 years ago, meaning it’s quite possible that you didn’t have kids when the 2009 movie premiered but now you are a parent. If that’s the case, the calculus for a night out at the movies is different. Is Avatar: The Way of Water, worth braving the three-hour-plus runtime and expensive IMAX 3D ticket prices for the whole family? Is it something to get a babysitter for? Or is it something to skip altogether?
It’s not hard to get cynical about some of the little decisions you need to make while raising children. But that leads to a more relevant question: Can you check any cynicism at the theater door when watching a movie about the decisions parents make while raising children? If yes, you might just find yourself enjoying an emotionally rich story about parents, children, and growing up. But, worst case, you’ll get to enjoy some truly sick action scenes. Mild spoilers ahead.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human-turned-Na’vi protagonist of the first film; and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), his wife and a proud Na’vi warrior, have had kids during the years between the films. There’s the perfect eldest son Neteyam, second son Lo'ak, and little daughter Tuktirey. They have two other kids, too. There’s Kiri, their adopted teenage daughter who was miraculously born from the deceased Dr. Grace Augustine’s Avatar (Sigourney Weaver, who played Grace in the first film, also plays her 14-year-old Na’vi daughter/reincarnation). Finally, there’s Spider, a human boy who stayed behind with the skeleton crew of friendly scientists when the Na’vi kicked all the humans off their homeworld of Pandora at the end of the last movie. Spider isn’t quite an official member of the Sully clan, but he scampers through the jungle with the best of the Na’vi, and he feels closer to them than whatever human family he might have had… or still have.
Because, although Jake and Neytiri have enjoyed more than a decade of peace and happiness since the humans left, the “sky people” come back shortly after an opening montage that catches the audience up on what they missed while James Cameron was exploring the Mariana Trench in real-life. The invading humans have come in greater numbers this time and they have a secret weapon: Recombinants, Avatars that were embedded with the memories of the marines from the first movie. When Quaritch 2.0 tracks down Jake and endangers his children in his mission to get revenge and also eliminate one of the Na’vi’s biggest war leaders, Jake and Neytiri have no choice but to flee the forest and seek refuge with ocean-dwelling Na’vi. It’s the only way their kids will be safe, but to live with the ocean Na’vi, the Metkayina, they’ll need to learn the way of water.
If this sounds a little bit like a soft retread of the first film but in Cameron’s preferred environment (underwater), that’s not totally wrong. Whereas the first movie was about Jake the human learning how to be a Na’vi, this movie is about Jake the forest Na’vi and his family learning how to be ocean Na’vi. If you go into the movie thinking that this all sounds silly, you will not like this movie. My advice is to not have that attitude.
It’s Jake and his family who are learning this time makes a huge difference. A common criticism of the first film was that the characters were two-dimensional — cardboard archetypes that felt flat against the dazzling 3D.
The Way of Water doesn’t reinvent the characterization wheel the way Cameron has reinvented so many parts of cinema, as there are still archetypes to be found. Yet the Sully family’s drama is engaging, and you’ll soon find yourself identifying with the various members of the fam’s struggles and goals even if it’s a little harder to identify which is the older and which is the younger brother. (I’m not saying that all Na’vi look the same to me… but these two do.) Kiri, probably the best character in the film, struggles with all the usual teenage girl stuff but she must also comprehend her mysterious heritage and a connection to Pandora’s planetary consciousness that suggests something greater is going on. Lo'ak struggles to be the son his father, who still defaults to his old marine days and treats the family like a “squad,” wants him to be. Spider wants so badly to be a full member of this Na’vi family that when presented with the opportunity to teach Recombinants how to be better Na’vi, his allegiances and his heart are tested.
All of this makes for a more intimate focus than the first movie. The final action set piece — which is awesome — is not the high-stakes battle for the fate of the planet that the first one ended with. It’s no less thrilling (think the last act of Titanic meets the middle third of Aliens), but it’s centered on the Sully family. You’ll probably come to care for them, and you might just find yourself identifying with Daddy Jake while the younger ones emphasize with Kiri’s search for her place or Lo'ak feeling that he’s always in his brother’s shadow. There’s more, emotionally, in The Way of Water — for both adults and kids — than there was in the first one, which was ultimately a simple narrative retold as a visually stunning romp with environmentalist vibes.
About those — your mileage may vary on how effective the first Avatar’s environmentalist message is. Is it a net good that the biggest movie ever made unabashedly casts humans who want to devastate an ecosystem in order to mine it for resources as villains? Or is it merely greenwashing, offering Lorax-lite platitudes about Pandora that are disconnected to any actual change here on Earth? Whichever side of the equation you’re on, The Way of Water largely eschews the big-picture environmentalism issues to hone in on a much more specific cause, one that’s both harder to quibble with but also essentially irrelevant in the modern era. A huge part of The Way of Water is about… whaling?
Yeah, so, there’s a big chunk of this movie that’s about Nalutsa, Pandora’s sentient and emotionally intelligent whale equivalents. There’s a whaling sequence — because the sky people have discovered a space-ambergris more valuable than Unobtanium inside Nalutsa — that’s deeply sad and borderline disturbing. The film makes these six-finned marine mammaliens carry significant parts of the plot, especially when Lo'ak bonds with one outcast male Nalutsa. It’s earnest and empathetic, but it also involves conversations with a whale subtitled in whatever custom font Cameron cooked up to replace the first film’s much-mocked Papyrus. The message is pure, the emotions true, the performances and effects wonderful, and it’s all deeply goofy if you let it be.
The Way of Water has so much to offer both kids and parents who go to see it. The characters are richer and the visuals — which I haven’t discussed much because there’s really no way to convey how neat it is to see battles or stunning coral reefs in top-notch, high-frame-rate 3D — are richer still.
But if you go into the film with a negative attitude you probably won’t be able to submerge yourself in its bounty. Chances are that kids — give or take a surly teen — won’t erect such barriers for themselves. (Though such a teen might still find Kiri interesting or at the very least be engaged with the action scenes, which involve Jake and Neytiri going nuts and one of those alien whales going sci-fi Moby Dick on the Sky People.) Beyond giving money for tickets and three hours of your time, The Way of Water requires that you fully give yourself to its astounding world.
Is Avatar: The Way of Water worth seeing, either with the kids or without? Whereas the answer to that question for the first film might have been “yes, for the spectacle,” the answer for The Way of Water is “yes, for the spectacle and what’s under the surface.” You just need to be prepared, like Jake Sully, to learn the Way of Water in order to truly experience it — or at least hold your breath.
Avatar: The Way of Water is in theaters now.
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